Grass, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature, has been battling with the legacy of the German past (and, as recently revealed his own guilt) since the publication of his first novel “The Tin Drum” almost 50 years ago. His novel, Crabwalk, published 2003, continues in this vein, but uses a different angle. This time, Grass analyses the German past with the emphasis firmly rooted on the sufferings of the ordinary German citizen fleeing from the advances of the Red Army. The focal point of the novel is the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a former cruise ship turned refugee carrier, by a Soviet submarine in January 1945. Some 9000 people, mostly women and children, lost their lives.The narrator of the story is a survivor of the tragedy – a man born during the actual sinking, a man who desperately wishes that he could live life beyond the shadow of the sinking but who is not allowed to forget, because his mother and, perversely his son, are both obsessed with it.

The story is told in a very indirect manner. While researching on the internet, the narrator, a journalistic hack, comes across a site (blutzeuge = martyr), a site commemorating the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The group behind it are obviously contemporary right-wing Germans, using the ship and its victims for their own propaganda. This sets off his memories and gradually the whole history of the ship, its sinking and the blight the past continues to exert on both the individual and the collective present unfolds.
In places this is a harrowing read. Yet the emotional pitch of the novel never becomes hysterical. It is very low key and detached. Grass achieves this through a variety of means: the emotional detachment of a narrator who wishes to distance himself from his past; the even handedness of the story which includes a stream with a detailed history of the Russian submarine and its captain; the narrative style, much of it written in the passive voice and, of course, the crabwalk of the title – a story, shuffling sideways and backwards, while slowly moving forwards.As if German history isn’t enough, this novel of only 234 pages tackles other major issues: the accountability of parents for their children’s behaviour; fate; whether humans can learn from the past.

The translation, itself, has attracted a fair amount of criticism. I can’t comment because I haven’tt got the German text to hand. Some of the longer sentences strike me as being typical German constructs. These might read better in English if broken down into smaller sentences. Yet, that, in itself, would change the pace of the novel, making it appear more dynamic and less of a crabwalk.

This is not a comfortable read but it is one that provokes much thought as it brings the legacy of the German past right into the 21st century.